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Jonathan Soto Races to the Finish in Heated Bronx Assembly Race 

Co-op City is at the epicenter of a Democratic Party primary showdown between Soto, a socialist, and 10-term incumbent Michael Benedetto.

John Tarleton Jun 14

Located in a quiet corner of northeast Bronx far from the bright lights of Manhattan and the hipster cool of Brooklyn, Assembly District 82 encompasses Co-op City, Throgs, Neck, Pelham Bay, Country Club, Westchester Square and City Island. This year it is the site of one of the most heated political battles in the Democratic primary season as DSA-endorsed Jonathan Soto challenges Michael Benedetto, a 10-term incumbent backed by the party establishment and Super PACs financed by real estate and charter school interests. 

Soto, an educator, community organizer and former AOC staffer, is running to become the first socialist to represent the Bronx in the state legislature since 1920. He challenged Benedetto two years ago and won 36 percent of the vote. This time he has the endorsement of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and all the enthusiastic volunteers and campaign infrastructure that comes with that. 

There are currently eight democratic socialists in the state legislature who face a persistent challenge – getting a Democratic governor and  Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the legislature to deliver results for working class New Yorkers instead of their wealthy campaign donors. Soto and two other DSA insurgent candidates – Claire Valdez running in Western Queens and Eon Huntley in Central Brooklyn – could grow the Socialist cohort in Albany to 11 and demonstrate that DSA is still a threat to entrenched machine incumbents six years after the group won its first legislative race. 

Soto recently joined us on The Indypendent News Hour to talk about his campaign. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full version here

The Indypendent: For starters, tell us a little bit about yourself and why you think your background makes you well prepared to serve in the State Assembly.

Jonathan Soto: I’m a community organizer, a public school parent, an interfaith leader whose views are shaped by liberation theology, and soon-to-be attorney. I recently passed a bar and have done lots of advocacy around special education. My daughter’s school was defunded by several million dollars in the last two years thanks to Mayor Adams and my opponent, Michael Benedetto. Benedetto is the chair of the Education Committee in the State Assembly and has supported this austerity vision of public schools. He is currently receiving support from charter schools. He is also a pro-war Democrat who’s calling on the State Assembly to support illegal settlements on the West Bank that are funded by charities based in New York State. These are some of the core issues and the intervention that we’re doing.

Regarding your interest in public education, can you talk about the Homework Helpers program you oversaw during the pandemic? 

My daughter was in the fourth grade at the start of COVID-19 when I was privileged enough to be serving on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’’s campaign. With the resources AOC allotted during the pandemic to serve our community, we were able to equip, train, and identify approximately 500 volunteers who were willing to provide one-on-one virtual tutoring to kids in the Bronx who were being left back by the switch to online classrooms.

We need universal programs like or Homework Helpers for all. It made me reframe many of my educational policies to think about universalist programming in education, as opposed to specialized programs like “gifted and talented” classrooms. I served in City Hall under Mayor de Blasio during his expansion of pre-K. This current administration is rolling back many of those universalist advances when it comes to early childhood education. So my hope is that by defeating the chair of the Education Committee, Assemblymember Benedetto, we could introduce a new philosophy of education that our kids so desperately need, especially those that have been left behind.

Why have you emphasized climate change on the campaign trail?

Climate change is a critical threat to our coastal district, not only is it a threat to our infrastructure that is worn and not equipped to deal with the massive flooding events that are happening, but the obsession and the addiction that we have to oil and natural gas is making the energy bills of our residents and constituents sky high. My opponent does not support the New York HEAT Act, which would cap energy costs for low-income New Yorkers, while also suspending any new connection of natural gas across the entire state. Benedetto doesn’t take an aggressive approach towards the existential crisis that climate change presents to our district here in the East Bronx. 

Why is your campaign focusing so much on Co-op City?

Co-op City is the largest natural occurring retirement community in the country, meaning that it is has been an oasis of affordability and quality of life since the 1960s. It’s a Mitchell Lama development, one of the last oases of affordability for New York State. 50,000 residents live there, and it’s primarily the place that our campaign is targeting and organizing.

And it was built by unions. 

It was built by unions from the ground up. Many of its streets are named after renowned socialists like Eugene Debs. You see a history and an acknowledgement of democracy and power and socialist vision at Co-op City. It is being threatened by the indifference of people like Benedetto, who is not moving towards a vision of a social housing authority or green social housing that we’re fighting for. So that’s why it’s very important for us to continue building socialist power. 

A public school parent takes on the chair of the State Assembly’s Education Committee.

You’ve embraced Palestine as a cause when most Democrats see that as a career killer. Why do you feel compelled to talk about it? What connection is there between Palestine and Puerto Rico?

It doesn’t matter if it’s a career killer, if the policies are literally killing children and committing genocide in Gaza. It’s really disturbing to see how Benedetto supports this battle of civilizations, having people stand with the Israeli military with state proclamations. It is really abhorrent for me. The connection between them is that like Palestinians, Puerto Ricans are stateless. We also suffer under the horrible imperialist and colonialist policies of the United States. So there is solidarity. We have dispossession of our beaches and our public assets in Puerto Rico go to crypto-currency colonizers, very similar to the settler movement of Zionists. The United States is responsible for what’s happening in Puerto Rico and for funding the Israeli military so that is a deep connection for people in the Bronx.

For more about the candidate, see soto4ny.com. The Indypendent News Hour airs on Tuesday 5-6pm on WBAI-99.5 FM and streaming on wbai.org. For past shows, visit our archive page. To sign up for our newsletter, click here. To support The Indypendent, click here and here

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